During that time I have heard a few fairly standard remarks about freelancing that group naturally into seven themes.
In fact they’re not just themes, they’re deadly myths. Myths, because they’re not true.
And deadly because if you believe them you will never achieve your full potential.
The worst of it is, these myths are usually put about by freelancers. Or, and I think this is much worse, people presenting themselves as “coaches” or “gurus” of one kind or another.
You know the sort of thing: “Hey, with my Gold-Plated Freelance Success Program you can be earning a six-figure income working from home in your pajamas, just by using social media”.
Er, no. You can’t. You can be $500 poorer and working from home in your pajamas. But’s that’s because you won’t be able to afford clothes.
Let’s take the myths one at a time, dismantle them, then concentrate on some ideas for growing a successful freelance business.
1. All you need is a desk, a laptop and a phone. Freelancing is a virtually cost-free business.
Yes, you do need those things. Plus maybe a printer. But they’re not all you need. No business worth its salt is “cost-free” and never should be. You need to be actively looking for things to spend money on that will give you a return on investment. Marketing for one.
2. Clients love quirky – images of vintage typewriters, photos of you in a funny outfit, or looking pensive or with your dog.
Clients love making money. That’s why they’re running businesses.
This is 2012. A vintage typewriter (one of the most common images on freelance copywriters’ websites) says, first, that you are locked into the past and, second, that despite what you claim in your copy, you do not have a creative mind or any original ideas.
If you did, why would you be using the same concept to sell yourself as hundreds of other freelancers?
3. Skype is great because “as well as serving clients locally I can work with clients all over the world”.
What do these people think happened before Skype? Ever heard of the telephone. Or email. Or letters. Or getting on a plane for God’s sake?
Wittering on about Skype just makes you look like a cheapskate. Oh, and that burbling when the bandwidth gets pinched? Not impressive to clients.
4. You only need to do social marketing.
Again, social marketing is one of the channels open to you. But it’s by no means the only one. If you’re shy, then it can feel like a lifeline. None of that scary face-to-face networking or, heaven forbid, selling. You just sit in your spare room tweeting away, building your business.
But remember, your more aggressive competitors are out there hustling. Mailing your clients. Meeting them at conferences. And although it is possible to get some work from Twitter, you won’t get all the work you could.
5. You need to explain to potential clients what copywriting is on your website.
Along with the vintage typewriter, the most common cliché on freelance copywriters’ websites is the section where they explain either what copy is, what a copywriter does, or why you need to outsource copywriting.
Two problems here. First, the client is on the site already. So presumably they typed in “copywriter”. Which means we can reasonably assume they know what you do.
Second, if they don’t then you are setting yourself a massive challenge: educating a sceptical or ignorant person and then persuading them that you’re the one they need. We are not educators, we are salespeople.
6. You get to work from home and wear what you like.
This reinforces that “spare room and pajamas” image of the industry. René Magritte, the surrealist painter, was about as creative as they come and he used to work in a business suit.
Do you think your clients are walking around in trackie bottoms holding a piece of toast on one hand and stroking the cat with the other? No, they’re dressed for business. Like you should be.
7. It’s all about expressing your creativity and getting to work as a writer.
The worst line any freelance copywriter can have on their website is this one: “Ever since I was a small child I have loved writing. After completing my degree in English literature I knew I wanted to make it my career.”
It’s not about being “creative”. It’s all about selling. Nobody is going to hire you because you love writing. The end.
Ooh dear, got a bit ranty there. And breathe.
OK. Now some thoughts on how to make some decent money and build your reputation and your freelance business.
I have tested all these myself and can vouch for them.
1. Get out there and network – but with the right kind of people.
Clients are people. That means they like meeting other people. Face-to-face. And that means networking. What it doesn’t mean is those dreary breakfast sessions where once a week you stand up and deliver your pitch. To the same people. Every week.
Do you specialise in particular industry? Attend the annual conference. Do you work mainly for local companies? Attend the local business expo. Do you specialise in a particular type of copywriting? Join the relevant association and attend their annual event.
2. Make a list of people you want to work for and write letters to them.
When I set up my copywriting agency, I really wanted to work with a particular publishing company. So I wrote to their managing director suggesting I did some work for her. And guess what. She hired me.
This method also has the advantage of allowing you to do some warming up first before the dreaded personal meeting.
3. Target clients who already know what you do, then all you have to do is sell you, not copywriting as a concept.
Forget about trying to educate the ignorant. Go after clients who have “hiring a copywriter when we need copywriting” as part of their job description.
A pleasant corollary of this is that they usually have a budget for copywriting as well.
4. Allocate a sum of money you’re going to spend every year/month on marketing. Spend it.
Do not be tempted to keep your outgoings to toner, paper and the odd cup of coffee. Remember, you are investing, not spending. What you invest in is up to you, but AdWords is a pretty safe bet. As is a yearly trip to a conference.
A postcard mailing to local firms might also pay off.
5. Measure the results of all your marketing activities. Drop the ones that don’t pay.
Investing is one thing; measuring the return on your investment is something else again. It may not be your favourite activity but unless you measure results you can’t make informed decisions about what works for you.
6. Put your prices up. You’re almost certainly charging too little.
I have seen copywriters advertising the fact that they are cheap. They even use that word. A sales letter for £90? No problem. Er, actually massive problem. For the copywriter.
You may feel that doubling your prices is out of the question, but adding 10% to every quote will bring in a lot of extra income over the year and probably won’t be a deal-breaker for any client.
7. Do not charge by the day or the hour.
What are you – a shelf-stacker? Charge by the project instead. That way the faster you work, the more money you make – instead of the other way around.
8. Add value when you publish.
If you are going to go to the trouble of writing an e-book, for God’s sake write something original.
The world really doesn’t need any more padded-out digital tomes advising people on the basics of copywriting.
9. Look at your business from the outside.
Take a cold, hard look at your business as a client would see it. Or better still, get your most critical friend to do it for you. Assess the professionalism of everything visible to clients. Redo anything that looks cheap, tacky or home-made.
That might mean your website (it often does), your business card, or even the way you answer the phone.
10. Find testimonials that show the results of your work, not just how much people like it.
Testimonials are a brilliant way to sell yourself. They come from disinterested parties after all.
But more powerful than expressions of delight are hard facts and data about improvements to sales, click-throughs or whatever the client hired you for.
11. Stop talking about your English degree – it makes you sound like a student.
This may come as a surprise to a lot of younger copywriters, but nobody cares about your English degree. I’m sorry, but there it is.
Do not mention it on your website. Do not have a link to your CV on your site. The page you need is “About us”.
12. Put a photo of yourself on your site and make sure it’s a good one.
You are selling a personal service, unless you are an agency, but even then you will be the MD. So meet people’s expectations and give them a face to put a name to.
Anything out of focus, featuring family pets or your hobbies is not good enough. Either hire a professional or your talented friend with a proper camera.
13. Don’t hide your contact details on your site’s About Us page.
When you’re ready to buy from someone, you want to get in touch. Straight away. It’s incredibly frustrating to have to hunt around for contact details.
Have a dedicated Contact Us page and call it that in the navigation. And please, let’s have phone numbers, physical address and email address, not just a form. Forms are off-putting.
14. Do not mention your rates on your site – it’s free information to your competitors and hard-nosed clients.
There’s no need to mention how much you charge. This is sensitive commercial information and also a key part of any negotiation.
If you were selling grass-seed or desk tidies, fine, put the price up where everyone can see it. But for copywriting, all they need to know is that you are professional and offer a valuable service. Ogilvy & Mather don’t put their prices online, why should you?
15. Use video on your site – of yourself and preferably other people talking about you.
Video is a more immersive medium than copy (shock horror) and draws people in. So as well as all those cleverly crafted words about you and all the reasons why the client should hire you, try and have at least one video on your site as well.
A testimonial is good, or a piece to camera from you where you say something intelligent about copy. I tend to think that for now, the content is less important than the form.
So there you have it. Seven myths you can forget and 15 ideas that should set you on the path to a more fulfilling and remunerative career as a freelance copywriter.